All movies, from heartfelt indies to calculated mainstream cash grabs, are products. They are commodified, distributed, marketed, and sold to the public based on the success of their advertising, and perceived merit. Good movies have a way of making us forget this fact, whisking us away on some grand adventure or sincere tale. Ant-Man, as well as May's The Avengers: Age of Ultron, are not so good at disguising their commercialization, and while you'd have to be pretty unfamiliar with the industry at large to expect otherwise, 2015 marks the first year where Marvel's seams are really starting to show. Those endlessly willing to indulge the studio's comic-based output will perhaps be able to focus on the narrative at hand, but for everyone else, the behind the scenes story takes precedent almost immediately.
The plot presented on screen involves one Scott Lang (Paul Rudd), a cat burglar with a passion for stealing from the rich who, as the movie opens, is just finishing a stint at the local jail. After a scene of painfully obvious product placement that takes place in a Baskin-Robbins, Lang decides that the straight life isn't cutting it financially, and sets out to rob the estate of one Hank Pym (Michael Douglas). What seems like an easy score turns out to be a game of cat and mouse, Pym entrapping Lang into participating in yet another heist, this one set at Hank's old place of work. The new boss in town, Darren Cross (Corey Stoll), is on the brink of selling a new and dangerous type of technology to whichever military group turns out to be the highest bidder, forcing Pym to entrust Scott with his most treasured invention; the Ant-Man suit, capable of shrinking its wearer to the size of its titular insect while only bolstering their strength.
Ant-Man gets a lot of things wrong: Peyton Reed's direction is as flat as a week-old soda, the screenplay fails to surprise even once, and as capable an actor as Rudd is, believing him as a Robin Hood-style vigilante who survives prison without a scratch is a leap too far. Mostly though, the film just struggles to make you care. The preparation for the burglary, always one of the highlights of any heist flick, is not only rushed, but conveyed with as few specifics as possible. The effects, while serviceable, seemingly press pause on the narrative happenings in order the go into some kind of video game inspired coma, and there's no amount of tongue-and-cheek delivery that will make multiple scenes of riding on the back of a flying ant go down any easier. There's also a subplot about Rudd trying to make things right with his young daughter, which would theoretically be the emotional heart of the movie if Ant-Man was capable of making us invest in any form that isn't monetary.
Ant-Man was originally set to be directed by Edgar Wright, the comedic genius behind Shaun of the Dead, Hot Fuzz, and Scott Pilgrim vs. the World. He and writing partner Joe Cornish were attached to the project for nearly a decade, and while both maintain a writing credit, their creative differences led to them abandoning the film. The movie we got instead constantly reminds one of what could have been; the myriad of jokes that fall flat could have easily been inflated by Wright's manic presentation, and though the existent version of Ant-Man is knowingly silly, there's little doubt in my mind that Wright would have wisely pushed the movie even further in that direction. It is undoubtably unfair to judge a movie by its troubled backstory, but there's just no ignoring the wasted potential of the still-unmade iteration, as Wright's words and narrative structure are relayed in the most banal fashion imaginable. In the end, I guess Payton Reed's Ant-Man did get us to care abut something; the fact that we traded in something that could have been great for the safest film of the summer.